Sound design is arguably one of the most integral yet underrepresented departments in terms of establishing tone in a game. The proper use of audio cues in a game can ultimately make or break the themes conveyed in the narrative. Luckily, “Undertale” brilliantly delivers on the auditory front with one of the most memorable video game scores in the last decade. “Undertale” has received almost universally positive remarks from critics and general audiences alike. The game’s success is made all the more noteworthy by the fact that only two people were involved on the entire project. It is a triumph in terms of blending mechanics and narrative, but I would like to focus specifically on its sound design. Namely, I wish to focus the way in which designer Toby Fox delivers dialogue.
“Undertale” delivers dialogue in typical roleplaying game fashion for the most part. Text scrolls across a text box usually accompanied with a picture of the speaking character’s face. However, Toby Fox adds a distinctive “mumble” to accompany every key speaking character in the game. By “mumble,” I refer to a single sound clip played in rapid succession to replicate unintelligible gibberish. This style of audio is most reminiscent of the Banjo and Kazooie series.While Toby Fox could have certainly used voiceover for his characters, it would immediately feel out of place given the game’s aesthetic and general feel. “Undertale” harkens back to early NES roleplaying games while still managing to feel modern by using new-age programming tools. Using voiceovers would only betray the sense of nostalgia the game delivers, while simultaneously disrupting the minimalistic nature of the game’s art. More importantly, the use of dialogue mumbling helps reinforce the memorability of each key character.
The sounds associated with Mettaton and Sans exemplify this philosophy beautifully.(While I won’t be addressing any plot points directly, some of the content discussed here maybe seen as spoiler-ish, so far warning). The character Mettaton is introduced fairly late into the game, and the sound associated with him will probably never leave my consciousness. When Mettaton speaks, the player hears industrial buzzing and clicks that are nothing short of grating.The best way to describe it would probably be “Satan’s jammed dot matrix printer.” The metallic sounds are immediately painful to the ears, but they are virtually unforgettable. Each time Mettaton enters a scene, tension is immediately built up thanks to the sounds one immediately associates with him. The sound clips for Sans, conversely, are short bursts of chuckling. This seems fitting considering how Sans life seems to revolve around comedy and making light of otherwise tense scenarios. However, the significance of the sound goes deeper than that. The laugh is low in pitch, making it sound almost empty. The complacency of the character himself combined with the hollowness of his laughter hints at a sense of mystery towards the character, as if he himself feels like he is out of place inside the context of the narrative. Even in the face of danger or peril, Sans’ voice remains the same. This connotes a sense of smugness or omniscience, indicating that he is fully aware of the player’s actions and is acting around them. Ultimately, the effect impressed upon the player is nothing short of chilling.
Toby Fox attaches a memorable sound clip to every one of his characters, and each one maintains a unique effect on the player. Combined with the soundtracks that highlight the personalities of certain characters, these audio cues do an amazing job at providing holistic insight into the world of “Undertale.” Nothing is sacrificed in its design, and it in turn proves to be one of the industry’s most influential titles.
Michael Dellapi is a staff columnist for the Highlighter.